The last time candidates jockeyed to take over the office of New Mexico commissioner of public lands, a contentious swap overwhelmed a crowded race for the usually quiet public job. The down-ballot race is heating up for the November general election, and the topic lingers.
In the 2010 Democratic and Republican primaries, all of the five candidates running for the position opposed at least some part of a deal that would have given private rancher David Stanley 7,205 acres of state trust land in exchange for 3,330 acres of his land near White Peak.
This year, as Democrat Ray Powell runs for reelection for the post against Republican challenger Aubrey Dunn, the contenders must plan to deal with a lawsuit from Stanley, who is fighting to claim quiet title to land that has historically been used by elk hunters to access the public space near Mora.
"It continues to be controversial," says Powell, a veterinarian who previously served as land commissioner from 1993 to 2002, then stepped aside because of term limits before being elected again in 2010. "There's a lot at stake with this lawsuit."
Though a relatively unknown public office, the land commissioner holds a great deal of unchecked power. The office is charged with the balancing act of managing and generating revenue from 9 million acres of surface and 13 million acres of subsurface state trust land across New Mexico. Land commissioners do this all without having to answer to the state Legislature or governor.
Republican Land Commissioner Pat Lyons, who served in the elected post from 2003 to 2010, pitched the White Peak trade as a boon to the state and a way to replace the checkerboard layout of access to lush public land. Stanley, who didn't return SFR requests for comment, has long complained about hunters trespassing his land to get there.
But conservationists, hunters and even then-Gov. Bill Richardson lampooned the swap as a sweetheart deal that lacked public input. Among the most vocal detractors was Powell, who questioned whether Lyons was trading fertile public wildlife habitat for "questionable pasture lands" and accused Lyons of pitting ranchers against hunters.
The state Supreme Court rejected the swap in a 3-2 decision on the basis that the land office didn't follow state auctioning rules. When Powell reclaimed the office, he quickly complied with the court and reversed the deal.
Powell says his office continues to help the public gain access to state land where gates had been moved or torn down. Though he maintains that the vast majority of state trust land lessees are "ethical, good public stewards," he says that some attempt to block hunters.
"You get a few people who create their own hunting zone," Powell says. "We're just making sure that the state trust land is accessible. I'm absolutely determined that you don't have to be rich to hunt and fish."
Dunn, himself a rancher and former president and CEO of First Federal National Bank of New Mexico, criticizes Powell for placing too much emphasis on leisure use of the state trust land and not enough on generating revenue.
"The hunting and other benefits of trust land is a benefit, but is not why the lands were trusted to the state," Dunn says.
Commercial lessees of the state trust land must pay royalties to the State Land Office, which then go to the Land Grant Permanent Fund, which currently totals $19 billion. Much of that money is used to pay for public schools across New Mexico.
Dunn, who is trying to unseat Powell before he takes on what would be his fourth four-year term, argues that Powell hasn't leveraged the office's full potential to generate revenue and jobs for the state. Dunn strongly opposes the recent designation of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, which is poised to turn just under 80,000 acres of state trust land in southern New Mexico over to the federal Bureau of Land Management. Powell favors the federal designation, adding that the land has "intrinsic biological value" and will be exchanged for land better suited for development.
Dunn, on the other hand, criticizes the designation as a land grab that will kill revenue-generating uses for that area, including what he characterizes as putting 40 current grazing leases of state trust land in jeopardy. "The land commissioner is tasked with not creating state parks but creating state revenue," Dunn says.
But Powell maintains that grazing will still continue when the land gets transferred to BLM. He adds that his office is negotiating a swap as part of the designation to acquire BLM land west of Las Cruces that's primed to be used for renewable energy projects. He expects a swap process to begin at the start of next year.
Powell's current term also benefited enormously from a recent boom in the oil and gas industry, which makes up 97.5 percent of the royalties that go to the Permanent Fund. This, plus Powell's incumbency status and name recognition, give him an advantage going into November. But Dunn, the son of former Democratic state Sen. Aubrey Dunn Sr., is no stranger to politics. He ran both for US Congress in the state's second district in 2008 and state senator against Democrat Phil Griego in 2012, but lost both efforts. So far, he's outraised his opponent by collecting $175,000 in donations as of late June compared to Powell's $66,000.
Regardless of who wins this fall, the State Land Office will have to deal with rancher Stanley's lawsuit, which has a hearing scheduled for next March.
Though Stanley has kept a road that he claims is going through his land open for the past few years, a skirmish between him and a visitor last month resulted in a small protest over access to White Peak from locals, according to former New Mexico Wildlife Foundation President Ed Olona.
The tension has been enough to prompt Albuquerque resident Greg Sarlo to quit hunting White Peak during elk season, which begins in the fall. Sarlo bemoans how hunters used to be able to camp near Red Lake, which is located in the center of the White Peak area. Now camping is restricted in the south of White Peak, which he says forces sportsmen to travel during the day on unkempt roads to get to the best land.
"That's made the area a lot more difficult to hunt," Sarlo says.
Olona is also upset with the newly designated camping grounds, which he says were negotiated between Stanley and the State Land Office without hunters and conservationists. Still, he adds that he thinks most sportsmen will support Powell for reelection.
"I think Ray Powell has done a real good job," he says.